An Interview with USYF founder Melissa Ballard and Delaney Reynolds from the Sink or Swim Project
December 7, 2021
Interviewee Name: Delaney Reynolds, Founder - Sink or Swim Project
Interviewer Name: Melissa Ballard, Founder - United States Youth Forum
Transcriber: Michelle Blakeslee, Programs Assistant - United States Youth Forum
Date: 9 November 2021
List of Acronyms: MB - Melissa Ballard; DR - Delaney Reynolds
Keywords: climate, climate change, climate policy, solar power, solar law, Florida, California, youth, climate activists, youth activists
[Intro] MB: Delaney Reynolds is the founder and CEO of the Sink or Swim Project and its popular website www.miamisearise.com. She is the author and illustrator of 3 children's books, as well as a comic book, on ecology topics. She also serves on the Youth Leadership Council of EarthEcho International, is an Ambassador for Dream In Green, and a member of the CLEO Institute's Leadership Circle, as well as the Miami-Dade County Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Steering Committee. Delaney has also been honored with numerous awards including the inaugural National Geographic Teen Service Award, the Miami Herald's Silver Knight Award for Social Science, and the University of Rochester George Eastman Young Leader's Award, among others.
MB: Delaney, I just want to welcome you to our interview today and I really appreciate you being willing to talk about the Sink or Swim Project and some of the other work that you’re active on and doing. I really appreciate it.
DR: Yeah of course! Thank you so much for having me. It’s my honor.
MB: Yeah. (laughing) Well, I thought we could start fairly easy with you just explaining the Sink or Swim Project in kind of your own terms and any other projects or initiatives that the Sink or Swim Project supports.
DR: Sure. So the Sink or Swim Project is a non-profit organization that I founded when I was about 14 years old and it has two main goals. So the first one is just quite simply educating as many people as possible about climate change and the science, the risks that we face, how it’s currently impacting us, what future impacts will be, as it continues to worsen, and then of course most importantly what we can do to help solve it. When I give presentations and stuff like that I like to focus on kids and youth groups ‘cause I truly believe that climate change is the most significant issue that the youth generations of today will ever face and I think that how we actually go about solving it will define our time here on this planet. So while I do presentations to all ages - adult groups, college students - I really like to talk with kids. And then the second portion of the Sink or Swim Project is political advocacy - so working with politicians from all over the world but of course specifically here in south Florida where I’m from and where I kind of work out of to try and implement different solutions that will help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change as well as reduce fossil fuels and carbon emissions which is, as most of us know, the cause of climate change.
So those are kinda the goals of the Sink or Swim Project and the way that it kind
of came about is I was born in Miami, Florida - a very cosmopolitan city here in
south Florida, millions of people - but as I was growing up I grew up part time in
the Florida Keys in a completely solar-powered home. A very small island called
No Name Key; there’s only 40 houses on the island and they’re all solar-powered
actually and it’s in the middle of two wildlife refuges so it’s a very special and
protected place and because of that I grew up loving nature, loving the ocean,
loving snorkeling, fishing, anything having to do with that kind of stuff. And I also
grew up learning about sustainability and its benefit not only to our environment,
but us as humans - to our pocketbooks, to us as a society. So I always knew I
was going to be involved with the environment and study marine science in some
capacity. But it was actually in-between elementary and middle school that I was
writing some children’s books that- that’s actually where I first learned about
climate change. So it was never in a classroom setting, it was on my own time as
a 7-8 year old at first and then I started to learn more about it as I grew up. Around
13 I decided I wanted to write my fourth book about climate change and sea-level
rise. So I, on my own volition, started to interview scientists to learn about the
science. I interviewed homeowners and business owners to learn how they were
being impacted by climate change so I could tell their story and show other people
what it’s like to live with the impacts of flooding in south Florida. And I also started
to interview politicians to learn what they were doing in south Florida - if anything -
to address the issue. And it was then that I realized - like I kinda came to an
epiphany - that if I learned about climate change, and I found it to be such a scary
topic, outside of a classroom setting that there was a really good chance that
other students my age - older, younger - didn’t know about it either.
I started to create a website; I started to post blogs about climate change. And
then I started to curate these powerpoint presentations and from there I reached
out to schools asking if I could give lectures to their science classes and things
like that. Eventually, I stopped reaching out and people started reaching out to me
and I created or I turned it into a non-profit organization and I got into politics and
from there it’s taken on a life of its own.
MB: Mhm. Yeah so, I want to kinda talk about all aspects of what you just [explained]. But let me really quickly focus on the author part because you’re an accomplished author now, having published four books and you have your blog posts that you do. So, is writing a particular passion for you and what kind of process do you have when you are writing - for example your blog posts which can be quite detailed?
DR: Yeah, I love writing. Like you said, it’s something that I do often with my blog. I try to put out at least one blog a month but that’s been hard with undergraduate and now graduate school it’s becoming even harder. So I’m trying but yeah. I love writing and my process for that is kind of first and foremost coming up with the idea for a blog. I don’t really plan any of it out, I’ll just read an article and form an opinion on it or see some new science that’s been published and think “Ooh I want to share this!” or just an update on some of the political stuff that I’ve been working on or just share literally anything about what I’m doing that I think would be important for other people to know or something that I think other people might be remotely interested in. So once I get an idea then I just kinda put my fingers on the keyboard and see what I can come up with on a whim and if I need to do more background research I will do that as I go, kinda as I come up with things that I want to write about. Then I always make sure that I have some sort of visual - whether that’s a picture or a video - because I think that that’s kind of more attention-grabbing than just blocks of text. So, that’s pretty much it. It’s pretty simple. I just kinda get an idea and run with it.
MB: Mhm, ok, and in the research process behind the blog posts, do you do pretty much like, I suppose, any research paper that you’re doing in school - is it like a similar process for that?
DR: Yeah, definitely. It’s very similar to just a regular school research paper. The most important thing to me when I’m doing research of any kind - whether it’s for a blog or a presentation or anything else in life - it’s super important to me that my resources and the things that I’m finding and writing about are credible. Most of the science that I will cite is from NASA, it’s from the Union of Concerned Scientists, it’s from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so national and international organizations that are full of scientists who are dedicating their life to studying climate change because I want to make sure that what I am citing is fact; that what they are finding is showing itself to be true. I don’t want to present anything that may mislead people or be a conspiracy theory or anything like that. I want what I post to be a majority consensus. I think that that’s really important because there is so much misinformation out there in the world about climate change. So that’s the most important thing to me when I’m doing background research is making sure that the source that I’m getting this information from whether it’s science or just an opinion - wherever that opinion is based from - is credible.
MB: I think that’s a process that every writer or author should use - that the sources they’re using are people who are informed about the process or the information comes from credible sources, or like you said, from a majority consensus, because sometimes that’s the best we can do. Take from what a majority of the experts say and work from there. So, going to some of the political advocacy work that the Sink or Swim Project has done - and you as well. I want to go to when, in 2017, South Miami passed an ordinance - and it was Florida’s first, I’m not sure, it was already implemented in California, is that correct?
MB: But it was Florida’s first ordinance that would require new homes to include rooftop solar installations and you were a big inspiration behind that ordinance. In fact, you wrote to half a dozen mayors about the ordinance and urged them to support it. Can you tell me [us] a little bit more about why you decided to write this ordinance and what the journey was from writing that ordinance, or doing the research behind the ordinance, to getting it passed? I imagine it was a long process and a lot of work.
DR: (laughing). Yeah, it was a long process. But, it started with inspiration from California. I read an article about the laws there. They have three different cities with existing solar laws, one of them being San Francisco which is one of the major cities in California. I thought that that would be a really cool idea here in Florida because we’re known as the Sunshine State first and foremost, so it makes sense, and also because we just need more renewable energy everywhere. I thought that this was a great way to make that happen. So, like you said, I wrote a letter to about a dozen mayors, that’s how I started. Just kind of gauging interest, see if anyone would respond - if anyone would be interested in doing something similar and the mayor of South Miami, Philip Stoddard, was the first to respond. He was super enthusiastic about the idea. He loved it, but he had one condition and that was that I help him write it. Now, at this point in my life I’m 15 years old, I have no idea - I really don’t know anything about the law, I don’t- I definitely don’t know how to write it. So, um, I was like “Sure, sure, I’ll help”. So he and I just started off, we spent hours together going through the California codes and seeing what their contingencies were. Then we went through South Miami’s codes and we had to make sure that whatever law we were proposing didn’t impose upon pre-existing laws. So there was a lot of changing and molding and working around different things and making sure that there were, you know, ways out of it in case solar wasn’t the right fit for your home because of tree canopy - we didn’t want people cutting down trees just to install solar, stuff like that. There was a lot of background research and taking certain things into account that went into it. After about a year we had our first draft. I went in front of the mayor and the commission and I spoke on behalf of the law and they passed it unanimously that night with some revisions. There were about two or three revision meetings after that and at the last one they passed it 4-1. So it made South Miami the first city in Florida and Florida the second state in the United States to have a solar power law.
And what it says is that any existing home that if you build a renovation that
extends that home by 75% of its size you have to install a solar system of
maximum possible size on that roof, or if you are building a brand new home from
scratch you also have to put a solar system on that roof of maximum size in the
city of South Miami. The city of South Miami is small, it’s not very big; there’s not a
lot of people building new houses or doing renovations - but it’s more so the idea
of it. And if cities all over the state of Florida were to do something similar then we
could make a huge impact as a state. Scientists predict that 50 percent - half - of
Florida’s energy needs could come from the Sun by 2045 if we were to get real
serious about solar power. So that’s [in] our lifetimes. And there’s no reason why
we shouldn’t do that. So this is kind of like the first step to hopefully achieving that
and I’ve had a lot of other cities and counties reach out to me with interest in doing
something similar. The city Orlando - or, not the city, but - Orlando reached out to
me with interest in doing something similar. St. Petersburg was this close to
achieving it and then they had an election that kind of messed it up, but they’re
revisiting it now which is awesome. And I’ve had other countries reach out to me
as well. I’ve had people from Canada and India ask me about it and ask how they
could do something similar. It’s been really cool and I’m really proud of it.
MB: Mhm. It’s not a story you hear about every day where a young person took such an initiative to go ahead and write an ordinance and [create a] partnership with the mayor of their town. Do you see that though as a model young people can follow? That they can see an issue that they’re passionate about and bring it to the attention of the local officials and actually work directly with them on this type of project.
DR: Absolutely, 100 percent. So while I am really proud of writing the ordinance and getting it passed, I think the biggest takeaway from it for me was the fact that youth can get heavily involved in politics. You can write a law in your local city and work towards getting it passed and ultimately get it passed no matter how old or how young you are. I was 15-16-17 when I was working on this law. I couldn’t vote yet. So that shows you that even if you don’t yet have a vote in your city/state/country, then you can still have a voice and make an impact in your community. I think that that is the perfect example of that and whenever I talk about the solar law it’s not to say “Hey! I wrote a solar law” it’s to say “Hey! You can do it too!” And if you want to, I already have the materials to do it. Send me an email, I will give you the letter I wrote. I will give you the law that we wrote. I will give you the speeches I gave in front of the commission. And like [I will] be involved as much as I can. I want to help. I want everywhere to incorporate solar power and renewable energy. So yeah, if you’re a youth and you’re out there and you’re listening to this or reading the transcription and you want to do this, please go for it!
MB: Yeah. That’s exactly the message that I think the United States Youth Forum wants to get out there - is that youth can be directly involved in these types of issues and they don’t need to be- they don’t need to feel like because they lack a certain amount of experience that they can’t jump in. Taking a step like you did puts them actively - as an actor, as an active player - pushing forward on issues that really they care about and matters to them.
MB: That’s really important for us.
MB: Yeah, so I’m very impressed by that and inspired.
DR: Thank you.
MB: So in March 2020 you were featured in a National Geographic article. It’s a very nice photo by the way.
DR: (laughing) Thank you.
MB: It’s a very nice photo. And it was about- the article was about young climate activists, some of whom have been activists for years, like yourself. You’ve been active for a long time on this issue. So I wanted to ask if you personally feel like there’s a lot of collaboration and communication within the climate movement. Do you personally communicate with fellow climate activists? [Do you] share best practices - for example, how to pass these types of ordinances? Do you think that the movement has been able to tap into the strength of having so much support amongst young people - it being such an important and urgent issue for many many young people?
DR: Yes across the board. I do a lot of work with other youth here in south Florida and all over the world. I think it’s really important to work with others because climate change is such a big issue. None of us can solve it on our own; we’re gonna have to work together in order to implement the solutions that we truly need as a society. So the more numbers we have, the more we work together, the better. I’m involved with a lot of different organizations that all have youth councils or youth board members or stuff like that. There’s the CLEO institute who has a gen-CLEO group. Earth Echo International has a youth leadership council. I’m involved with an organization in New Mexico that works on educating students about climate change. I’ve worked with students in India, in Vietnam, in the United Kingdom - all over - on different climate change issues and topics. I do a lot of work like that. It’s super important. We often have really good conversations about what each of us is doing to solve climate change. And I think the most interesting ones are the ones that I have with those abroad because our societies are different in many aspects so it’s super interesting to hear how different people are approaching it across the world. And it’s also interesting to be able to draw from some of those ideas and try to use them in the different places that we live. But we’re seeing a lot of this youth support globally. A lot of it started with the Fridays Strike for our Future that Greta Thunberg kinda headed and started. We’ve seen millions of kids join together whether it’s in the streets to demand climate action or working behind the scenes after those strikes to ensure that their political leaders are listening. And that they’re following up on those strikes and making sure that political leaders are following through with those promises that they’re making as a result of them. I think that there’s been a real turning point in the future of climate change even in just the past couple years, regardless of COVID and especially because of Zoom we’re now a global community. And the fact that a couple of years ago youth were involved, but now we’re way more involved. We’re heavily involved. If you look at different postings or pictures from the COP26 conference that’s going on right now as we speak in Glasgow, there’s a lot of kids that are attending the conference which is super cool! Just a few years ago COP25, COP24 you didn’t see that happening. So now that’s actually super encouraging. We’re getting involved with the science. We’re getting involved in global decisions that our leaders are making. It’s super exciting. I think that we’re seeing a lot of changes and I think that because of it I have even more hope for the future. I think that, like I said earlier, the biggest issue the youth generation is gonna face and how we solve it will define our time here on this planet. I word that very carefully - how we solve it will define our time here on this planet. I think we are gonna solve it. We’re gonna be the ones who are going to do that. As soon as we can replace these political leaders who are deniers or who want nothing to do with climate change and we can start to implement the solutions ourselves, we’re going to. And we’re already seeing that happening. We’re fed up, we’re tired of the inaction. This is our future and we’re taking control of it. So it’s awesome. (laughing)
MB: (laughing) Yeah I mean, this is exactly right though. I think that the power of the climate movement has been to show young people that they can be actively involved and make a real difference. I think it was for a long time that many young people felt really disconnected from their communities and politics simply because they've been told for a really long time that “It’s not your space.” And now they’re feeling like this is a space that we own. This is our space and we can advocate for a better future on our behalf and it’s activating, like you said, millions of young people around the world. It’s really powerful and it spills over into other areas as well. Many young people who became - who joined the climate movement - have also become active in other political areas. That’s the power of the climate movement that I personally have witnessed and am really excited to see. I share your enthusiasm for it. And I want to hone in a little bit on something you mentioned there about there being politicians who are, for example, climate deniers and there’s always opposition to these movements. There’s always - you’re always gonna come up against opposition. And for example, I’m sure you faced opposition when you were trying to pass the ordinance in South Miami. How do you address that opposition? How do you handle it personally?
DR: The best way that I’ve found to face any sort of opposition no matter who or where it’s coming from is just through facts. Credible facts, credible sources - going back to that. Like you said, or like you guessed, I did face a lot of opposition with the solar ordinance. I directly had to speak against adults in the building industry and even our local power company. The building industry, real estate agents and stuff like that, they didn’t want the law to be passed because it was just another “burden” to them. They thought that it would reduce the price of homes that they were trying to sell and therefore they would get less income and they threw a fit over it. But the facts are...studies and scientists say that solar actually increases the value of a home when you’re trying to sell it. And more and more people are actually looking to buy homes with solar already installed on the roof. So, there are your facts that dispute their arguments. Our local power company - so here in south Florida it’s interesting because there’s only one, we only have one. Most places get to choose who their provider is but we have a sort of monopoly and they have fought solar power pretty much every step of the way. Whether it’s through the ordinance that I wrote or otherwise. They’ve posted amendments that they’ve tried to pass that would give them complete control of the solar industry in south Florida and basically put small business owners - solar business owners - out of business. Luckily the amendment wasn’t passed because we have awesome people who read the fine print and realized what their true intention was. But they also came out and spoke against me personally and the solar ordinance. Their arguments were even easier to overcome with facts. The biggest one that they cited is that the solar ordinance wouldn’t work in Florida like it does in California because the Sun in California is different. (laughs) Yeah. I mean any logical person hears that and laughs. It’s ridiculous.
MB: (laughing) I mean I don’t know, I’m originally from Minnesota and I’m sure there’s so many people from Minnesota who are like “The Sun is different up here too!” You know? “It feels different”
DR: (laughing) It might feel different, it’s a different climate. But the Sun is the Sun no matter where you are. You’re getting the same sunlight. You know, maybe his argument was in some places solar energy isn’t as productive but that’s just not the case in Florida. So anyways, but once again I just came back with arguments and basically cited the fact that they tried to pass this amendment so clearly they’re against the solar industry. They like to tout that they love solar. They like to tout how much solar they actually install. They run ads on TV and in the newspapers. But their own annual report says that they produce less than half of one percent of their energy from solar power. So it’s very clear that they’re not in favor of it. So, posting those facts, citing them - making sure you have reputable sources - super important when it comes to stuff like that. That’s a huge way that I’ve been able to overcome opposition.
MB: Mhm. I imagine it’s also difficult occasionally when you’re hearing these arguments to keep a calm head and just, you know, “keep calm and carry on” as they would say in England.
DR: It is. It is difficult sometimes but I just try to put myself in a sort of professional mindset and just keep composure and focus on what needs to be done.
MB: Yeah that’s the best way to go about it. Yeah, exactly. I want to also ask, because you mentioned it earlier, if you have any thoughts about [COP26], on what’s happening over there right now. I know they’re currently still in talks I think until Friday [12 November 2021]. Any thoughts that you want to share about it?
DR: Yeah. There’s been a lot of great first steps that have been taken. For example, India committed to net zero emissions. However, they committed to that by 2070. I wish that would’ve been an earlier date - maybe like 2045, 2040, 2030? Maybe? But it’s a first step so maybe they will speed that up. Other places like China and Saudi Arabia made the same- or similar promises but by 2060 so that’s a little better. And then there were, like, over 20 countries that said that they would slash methane use within the next 9 years - which is great. That’s awesome because methane is more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to our climate change crisis. It’s just not as abundant, but it comes out of fracking rather than just burning fossil fuels from a car or factory. So even though it’s not as abundant the more we do it, the worse it is for our environment. They made renewable energies more accessible. A lot of smaller territories joined the agreement that weren't originally in it, so that’s awesome. And then they set a lot of biodiversity goals to protect 85% of the world’s forest by 2030 - a great goal. They set the largest ocean sanctuary ever created which is really cool. There’s a lot of really good things happening but they’re of course just first steps. If we really want to crack down on climate change then we just need to, quite simply, eliminate the use of fossil fuels and our carbon emissions. We need to transition our society from one based on these antiquated technologies to one based on renewable energies and we need to be doing it now - not by 2070. We need to do it like last year. But that’s okay, they’re working towards it. So, you know, it’s been a productive conference. President Biden was there whereas our previous president did not attend, so I guess that’s another good step.
MB: Symbolic step, yeah
DR: Hopefully we stay in that direction as a country. But a lot of good progress.
MB: Let’s hope that President Biden can back that up with some climate change provisions passed in the - I think they’re calling it the Build Back Better bill.
DR: Yeah, I’ll give it to him - he is trying, but it’s been difficult with a couple of the people in the house and the senate.
MB: Yeah, it hasn’t been an easy process but it’ll be great to see that pass and it’ll be I think the biggest investment in climate change and renewable energy sources, and just in general the biggest [green] investment ever, which is fantastic and something that should have happened a long time ago I think. I don’t know, I think that the messaging is sometimes so wrong where people believe that climate change activists are always about trying to prevent people from doing things or saying “no, you can’t do that” or whatever. It’s not just that, it’s that we actually want a more technologically advanced society in general. More technologically advanced, cleaner. We want - we’re for something, we’re not always against something.
DR: Right, exactly.
MB: I think that’s a better way to look at it. We are for a greener, better future. And that transition to green investment is going to be so much better for everybody. Better for the economy, better for our health, better for the planet. It’s just all positive. You know?
DR: Yes. Fingers crossed that something, at least some part of his plan can get passed.
MB: Let’s hope. So, I kind of want to close with a question about you and how you - I think that [the] Miami Hurricane - let me quote this - the Miami Hurricane wrote this “Defending Florida from the effects of climate change is what Reynolds has classified as her lifelong goal since she was 8 years old.” So you’ve been in this fight for awhile and I wonder if there’s been moments where you’ve really struggled in that fight. Where you thought “this is too much” and if so, did you persevere through that? Or has it been a journey that you feel like has been one you’re proud of?
DR: A little bit of both. I’m definitely 100 percent proud of everything that I have been able to accomplish. All the people that I’ve been able to work with and everything that I’ve been able to do in general, but there have been moments where it has been hard. You know, climate change is a huge issue. There’s a lot at stake. It’s not just sea level rise. And there are moments where I think to myself “am I not doing enough? Am I just focusing too narrowly on sea level rise? Do I need to be doing more on different issues? Do I need to be tackling things in different states and in different countries? Am I even going to be able to make a difference at all? Is what I’m doing important at all?” Because it’s a scary topic, you know? It’s daunting. There’s a lot at risk, there’s a lot at stake. I’m in the process of losing my most precious environment where I live, where I’ve lived my entire life, where I’ve grown up. So there are times when it gets really difficult for me to even think about what I’m doing and what my future could look like. Is it even worth it at times? But when I start to think so pessimistic-ly like that I try to draw myself out of that real quick and point myself more in the positive direction. I try to think about all the kids that I’ve worked with who are younger than me, who are the future after me. I think about the questions that they ask when it comes to solutions. A lot of adults don’t even ask about solutions. Most of the kids that I talk to do. I talk about how I get emails - or I try to think about how I will occasionally get emails from students who I spoke to months or years ago about updates on what they’ve done in their own communities or in their own school; how they were able to get a solar system installed in their school; or they’ve been working with their community to implement solutions; or they joined a climate organization. It’s the little victories like that where I realize that I’ve been able to inspire other people to get involved with climate change. And that’s the reason that I’m doing this. I’m educating people so that they learn more and they become involved because like I said earlier, this isn’t something that I can do alone. Because it is so big, maybe just focusing on solely sea level rise right now is the best way to approach that because I can get things done here at the local level. And then I can continue to the state level and then I can continue to the federal level but it takes baby steps and it takes a whole team. I try to think about that and I try to think about the fact that youth all over the world are getting more and more involved and that I really do think we have hope for our future and in solving this issue. So yes, it definitely does get hard but I try to pull myself out of that really quickly and stay optimistic.
MB: Mhm. Focusing on the positive effects that have come out of this journey. Well thank you so much Delaney again for joining us and talking to us. We really appreciate it and I again appreciate all of the work that you’ve been doing. I want to affirm you in that work. It’s really fantastic.
DR: Thank you, thank you so much for having me.